Review of DallasSITES: Available Space at the DMA

Many people have been noting the vitality of North Texas’ art scene lately. In the last couple of years some alternative spaces have opened, giving the area’s early career artists and less conventional voices a platform and some much deserved notice. There’s also been a bit of an unofficial homecoming for some North Texas artists who’ve been away awhile, but for one reason or another have found their way back home. The popularity and emergence of collectives, pop-up events, and the varieties of performance, installation and new media art continues to rise too. Add a motivated mayor, a gorgeous Arts District, a seemingly ever-developing Oak Cliff, the abiding relevance and persistence of quality galleries, as well as the area’s various Universities’ unfailing matriculation and commencement of MFAs and you have a recipe for a thriving local arts scene, one in which something promising seems to be happening almost every week. And the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) has done its part to up the ante with Gabriel Ritter’s curated show, DallasSITES: Available Space.

One of the many possible origin narratives of the show begins with curatorial research. For the past couple of years Leigh Arnold, with support from the Texas Fund for Curatorial Research, has been acquiring ephemera and select art objects documenting the contemporary art scene in North Texas over the last fifty years. It’s an ambitious undertaking to collect and archive the critical moments and movements of contemporary art in the region over such a long stretch of time, but the arts community is clearly well served by the preservation of its own history. We often get so excited about what’s happening next that we neglect our own historical context. This ongoing project makes it much easier for local artists, cultural practitioners and arts patrons to acquaint themselves with the area’s contemporary art past. If you wish to see the initial fruits of this labor and the ovum for Available Space, go see Gabriel Ritter and Leigh Arnold’s co-curated exhibition DallasSITES: Charting Contemporary Art, 1963 to Present at the DMA, on view through September 15, 2013.

(I could here also discuss the exhibition, Hotel Texas: An Art Exhibition for the President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy, connecting it to the show and the relevance of 1963 for Dallas, but given its nature and branding I’m sure more than enough ink will be spilt on its behalf.)

Now, what’s intriguing here is that the DMA took the archiving of the area’s contemporary art scene and went a step further: an exhibition of local contemporary artists. Let’s chalk it up to good timing and an institution seeking to increase its participation with the local arts community (though some may wonder why it’s taken so long). The DMA found themselves with some time on the calendar in which no exhibitions were scheduled for the Barrel Vault and its surrounding galleries, just a couple of months between Cindy Sherman and Jim Hodges. What to do? Being not enough time to put together a “proper” exhibition, they decided to experiment (which is no easy task for any large institution whatever its make or model). Reenter Gabriel Ritter, the museum’s assistant curator of contemporary art, and the possibility of contributing and responding to the historically-oriented show just down the hall (Charting Contemporary Art) and DallasSITES: Available Space is born.

Available Space brings together some the area’s finest artists, art organizations and collectives under the DMA’s roof: HOMECOMING! Committee, The Art Foundation, Dallas VideoFest, Performance SW (PSW), Oil and Cotton, as well as Brookhaven College and the museum’s own C3 Center for Creative Connections. Between the quality of the installations and the performances and the interactive programming and learning, this exhibition justifies the museum’s decision to let their guard down a little and do something out of their comfort zone. I knew they’d done something right as soon as I entered the space and saw The Art Foundation’s installation, Boom Town, including Brandon Kennedy’s NFS, in which he’s taken his father in law’s gorgeous 1973 Jaguar XJ6 and filled the interior with large stacks of rare first editions of theoretical texts, most of which seem to be on art and economics. It’s a simple and effective visual commentary on art and patronage, and the museum setting helpfully nudges it into gentle satire. Also there you’ll find Margaret Meehan’s The Circled Square, an old-fashioned boxing circle drawn on the ground encircling a pair of aluminum boxing gloves, which rest upon a black glitter mat. Like most of her work it’s a strangely subtle merging of images and intimations evoking meditations on violence and gender, elegance and brutality. Whatever The Art Foundation (a Dallas collective focused on furthering artistic dialogue) is up to, it almost feels like cheating — and good for them, and good for Dallas. Honestly, it’s quite the impressive collection of local talent. The Dallas VideoFest installation in the Rachofsky Gallery is no less a fine instantiation of work by area artists, including Michael A. Morris, Carolyn Sorter and Morehshin Allahyari (to name but a few whose work I appreciate).

Of everything associated with the show, however, the most note-worthy offering comes from HOMECOMING! Committee. The Fort Worth-based collective’s inter-active performance installation, Post Communiqué, turns the Hanley Gallery into a two-story multi-room underground station, replete with references and nods. There’s a multi-monitor video room for psychological deprogramming (I assume), a bunk-bedded barracks, an office with clocks displaying the time in certain major cities around the world, there’s a chess game going on, a punching bag to keep in shape — and it all looks good. They paid attention to the details. And it has that conceptual angle of odd needed to pull off such installations. Then there are the other works in the space, in which they’ve inserted themselves into iconic works of art, which is always good for a laugh or a moment of perspective. Also, by placing themselves into well-known contemporary works of art they have created a fictional history that makes them, a fairly new art collective, appear as though they’ve been around for the last fifty years (another smart nod to Charting Contemporary Art). My only doubt, however, rests with these outlying works. While they’re perfectly competent and effective works on their own, the space would’ve been better served had HOMECOMING! given themselves completely over to the bizarre station house, their operational nerve center. I felt a bit distracted by the surrounding work, when I wanted to be immersed in the fantasy their underground revolutionary habitation elicits. But then again, perhaps time or intention prohibited the scale I would’ve preferred. In any case, it’s undoubtedly worth your time, as is the exhibition entire.

Criticism — essentially appreciation at its most formal (and perhaps at its best) — is rarely accomplished without questions and doubts. And as this review needed to function much more as an introduction to a show with a fair amount of background and set up, the sorts of questions and doubts I’d like to explore contract to two: I question the number of artists and arts organizations involved and I question whether this exhibition was intended as a new direction or a somewhat condescending nod and pat intended to ameliorate the DMA’s history of distance from the local arts scene. First doubts first, I have no doubt that either The Arts Foundation or HOMECOMING! Committee could have taken the Vault and its surrounding galleries and given us an exceptional and coherent show. But time was not on Gabriel Ritter’s side, and it’s tough to pass on the chance to expose as many local artists as possible at one go. He had to fill that space quickly and diversely with artists and groups that weren’t gambles. And that he did, so I can set aside my first doubt (though I’ll still wonder what HOMECOMING! Committee or The Arts Foundation would have done in that space all by themselves…).

The second doubt arrives more from a hermeneutic of suspicion (which I learned from studying with a Womanist scholar), in which a large, bureaucratic, hierarchical, well-endowed institution never does anything that doesn’t ultimately seek to affirm its own well being and influence. Meaning, of course, that any act of participation, goodwill, outreach or support by such an institution must be read as an occluding, self-serving gesture: good press for doing something that was really only done to promote the institution. Obviously this is rather skeptical and ignores the possibility of simultaneous truths and genuine goodwill. But naïveté serves no one well here, so we should wait and see what the DMA does next. And, to be clear, it’s not that the DMA has oppressed or even disenfranchised local contemporary artists, it’s that they’ve historically ignored them (which in some ways is even worse). Also, and most obviously, it’s a museum with museum commitments — it doesn’t need to do anything other than what it has been doing, including C3, Late Nights, Arts & Letters, Thursday Night Live, which are promising forms of interactivity and connectivity. Still, it’s a major art museum and Dallas and its surrounding areas have many quality artists who would benefit — as North Texas would, as the DMA would — from more institutional support and notice. Hopefully DallasSITES: Available Space is the beginning of a genuine new direction for the DMA and its relationship with local artists and not, as wonderful as it is, a one-off instancing of business as usual to appease the natives.

In any case, it’s an idea and a show worth your time and consideration.

—ANDY AMATO, PhD

Andy Amato is a Dallas-based artist, writer and teacher

“DallasSITES: Available Space,” DMA, July 19 through August 25, DMA.org

(This is a longer, unredacted version of a review published by Arts and Culture Magazine, which you can find here: http://artsandculturentx.com/dallassites-available-space/)

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